2003 – XI

Investigating the Mind
Exchanges between Buddhism & Biobehavioral Science

September 13-14, 2003
MIT’s Kresge Auditorium, Cambridge, MA

The Dalai Lama at MIT

For more information, please see the Investigating the Mind website.

An edited selection of dialogues from this conference has been published as The Dalai Lama at MIT.

Can western science, in the pursuit of its own research, make use of Buddhism’s 2,500 years of investigating the mind?

From its inception Buddhism has probed the nature of mind, using the mind itself as its instrument of investigation, especially with the aid of refined meditation methods. For the past millennium, Tibetan Buddhists have pursued this investigation in monastic universities with rigor and exacting scholarship. Until now, science has been skeptical of this course of investigation because of its subjectivity–the use of the mind to investigate itself. Today, however, especially with the development of new technology, the biobehavioral sciences (neuroscience, cognitive science, psychology, biomedicine) are in the process of extending their methods in search of ever bolder approaches to studying the workings of the human mind.

In September 2003, western scientists and scholars, will come together with Buddhist scholar-practitioners and the Dalai Lama of Tibet for two extraordinary days of presentation and dialogue at Harvard University. Building on 15 years of private meetings, the goal of this meeting, Investigating the Mind: Exchanges between Buddhism and Biobehavioral Science, is nothing short of attempting to identify the common ground between these two powerful empirical traditions — Tibetan Buddhism and biobehavioral science — that are both deeply committed to understanding how the mind works, even as they have approached the challenges of investigating the mind in very different ways and, in part, out of very different motivations.

Investigating the Mind will consist of three sessions that address empirical findings about three aspects of mind that have been addressed by both Buddhism and biobehavioral science: attention and cognitive control, emotion, and mental imagery. Each of these sessions will begin with some orienting remarks by a senior scientist from the biobehavioral sciences and a senior scholar from Buddhist studies. The Dalai Lama will then have an opportunity to reflect on what has been said, and then the presenting scientist and Buddhist scholar will be joined in a panel discussion with an interdisciplinary group of scientists and scholars. A final session will aim to integrate insights from the three sessions about how the mind works, and place them into a larger philosophical and ethical context.

The Dalai Lama, the guest of honor at the conference, will participate actively in every session — both as a teacher of his own tradition and an interlocutor of our own. Investigating the Mind: Exchanges between Buddhism and Biobehavioral Science is co-sponsored by the McGovern Institute at MIT and the Mind & Life Institute.

Attention and Cognitive Control

Attention has sometimes been referred to as the “gateway to consciousness.” Cognitive control is defined as the ability to act (or think) in accord with intention. These were once taboo topics within the biobehavioral sciences in the thrall of stimulus-response and narrowly mechanistic understandings of human action. However, with the rise of cognitive science and new developments in brain-behavior research, the phenomena of attention and cognitive control have, over the past three decades, become central and burgeoning areas of research.

The focus so far has been on understanding the psychological processes and underlying neural mechanisms of attention and cognitive control. There is also growing interest in phenomena that involve alterations in the normal locus of control, such as hypnosis and placebo responding. These may offer a window on attention and control processes that provide insights into capacities beyond the limits of normal function.

To date, however, there has been little if any attention paid by attention and cognitive control researchers to Buddhist teachings and empirical observations on these matters. This seems like a missed opportunity, in that Buddhism is very clear that training the attention – teaching the mind to focus on its inner contents in a sustained manner – is a gateway to an expansion of one’s capacity in general to exert cognitive control both over the contents of one’s own thoughts and (possibly) also the processes of one’s own body.

Indeed, there have been reports for centuries that advanced Buddhist practitioners have the capacity to exert voluntary control over bodily processes that normally lie outside of voluntary control (e.g., autonomic processes like heart rate and body temperature). What are the implications both of Buddhist teaching and empirical investigation into the scope of cognitive control for modern attention and cognitive control researchers? And what are the implications of results from scientific studies of attention and cognitive control for Buddhist understandings of the centrality of attention as the bedrock of spiritual practice?


Buddhist psychology and western psychology begin with very different starting understandings of emotion as a fundamental dimension of human mental life. Western psychology, for example, tends to be concerned with the valence (“positive,” “negative”) of an emotion, while Buddhism has tended to emphasize the wholesomeness or not of a particular emotional experience for the individual’s personal and social functioning in the world. Buddhism insists that emotions can be regulated with cognitive strategies, while western psychology has tended to assume that emotions are exactly that part of human mental life most apt to degrade or “swamp” normal systems of cognitive reasoning and control.

Buddhist approaches to emotion place great emphasis on the power of compassion and provide very specific methods for its cultivation; in contrast, compassion has been relatively ignored in the western lexicon of emotion. Finally, Buddhist approaches emphasize the importance of first person accounts but are based upon the premise that accurate first person reports require systematic training. Self-reports of emotional experience are frequently obtained in western research on emotion, but there is little emphasis on how specific training might improve introspective access.

The time is clearly ripe for a systematic examination of the points of divergence and overlap between Buddhist and western understandings of emotion. In particular, we will want to examine those areas that have the greatest potential for mutual learning: why do our two traditions disagree about the extent to which emotion can be voluntarily controlled? Can evolutionary and Buddhist views of emotion be reconciled, and on what grounds, empirical or otherwise? How far might new brain research on interfaces between cognitive and affective functioning cast new light on traditional Buddhist understandings of the role of emotion in cognitive function?

Mental Imagery

Mental images are furniture of the mind. When we are conscious of our thoughts, we are aware of images–visual, verbal, tactile, and all the rest. Objects populate the world without; images populate the world within. Indeed, such notables as Albert Einstein and Marcel Proust claimed that their most creative moments hinged on observations about their imagery.

Nevertheless, the study of imagery within western science has a checkered history. Until very recently, imagery seemed like an utterly private event, something we could access only through introspection. Growing suspicion of introspection in the middle decades of the 20th century led behaviorist psychologists and philosophers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein to thus claim that imagery could not be studied scientifically. Today, we believe that the behaviorists and these philosophers were wrong. Not only have we developed behavioral techniques that allow us publicly to validate introspections by tracking the observable footprints of imagery, but also we now can use brain scanning to observe the neural levers and pistons that power imagery.

There is still, however, a great deal more to do, a great deal more that we would like to know. In particular, our understanding of the phenomenology of mental imagery – the scope of cognitive and emotional experiences that people can have of imagery – remains woefully underdeveloped. In contrast, over the centuries, Tibetan Buddhism has developed a system of disciplined introspective techniques for generating, controlling, and observing mental images that is probably unparalleled in the world. What can modern science learn from this rich and virtually untapped database of phenomenological observation? What can traditional Buddhism learn from us?

Integration and Final Reflections

This conference has examined attention, imagery, and emotion in turn from a Buddhist and a western biobehavioral scientific perspective. In this final session, we are interested in putting together the pieces: in understanding how both traditions understand the functional interrelations between attention, imagery, and emotion; and, more broadly, what each tradition understands the “mind” to be, and on what empirical basis.

Differences in methodology will be critical to this discussion. Buddhism as a mode of inquiry is characterized by highly disciplined practices of introspection or “first person” methodologies. Western biobehavioral science as a mode of inquiry is characterized by no less disciplined practices of external or “third person” observation, especially using instruments. Are these differences complementary or more fundamentally at odds with each other?

Motivation will also be critical to this discussion. Buddhism and western science are both committed to empirical investigations of the mind, but for reasons that are embedded in apparently quite different ethical and philosophical traditions. What kind of cross-cultural exchange on how the mind works, now and in the future, is best suited to advance what is most compelling both intellectually and ethically within both traditions of inquiry?